Activity hour was a sweet solace, promised to me at 2 pm of every workday. For an hour I sent the children to another instructor for a break from the mundane. This was my time to recuperate, grade work, and restore the day’s destruction upon the classroom.
Monday, they played music. Tuesday was art. Wednesday was athletics. Thursday was spent with the guidance counselor. Friday was with the librarian, Ms. Witherspoon. My second graders, naturally full of excitement, would return from activity hour with stories to tell, regardless of who they’d spend their hour with. I, naturally keen to detail, couldn’t help but notice they were slightly less excited about their afternoons in the library.
Initially, I’d attributed it to a dislike of books. After all, what child would prefer sitting cross legged and reading a book, when they could be playing kickball in the field with Coach Ramos? They preferred painting and playing the recorder over reading. These things also felt like natural behavior for a group of second graders, so I waved my caution.
After all, Ms. Witherspoon was a stout woman, who spoke in a snarl that might be off putting to a timid child. She was very particular about the arrangement of the books, adamant that they remained color coded by reading level and on the shelf that matched it. Her sharp communication of these standards was harsh. I preferred a nurturing approach when guiding the children in the right direction, perhaps even too nurturing at times. But I understood teaching styles varied, and I respected Ms. Witherspoon’s methods.
She’d held home at Elk Grove Elementary longer than anyone in its history, changing with the school, as it had undergone remodels and staffing upheavals. She was a teacher before me, since retired to the library. She’d once told me that she preferred the children in “doses” as she got older. It seemed the children preferred to not spend time with her at all.
“Miss Privett, please don’t make us go.” One of my students, a boy named Avery, lagged at the end of the line.
“Oh, it won’t be that bad.” I assured him, with a sweet smile. Glancing down the line, the smiles were not returned. Small, fearful faces looked up at me. “We have reading logs due this week, so I want all of you to bring back an exciting book!”
I should have known that homework wouldn’t improve their mood. I led a surly line to the library and deposited them for their hour with Ms. Witherspoon. When they returned to the classroom, they were excited indeed. But it wasn’t books they’d brought, but stories about Ms. Witherspoon herself.
“She’s a witch!”
“She’s going to boil us and eat us alive!” another whined.
I quickly made to shut the classroom door before anyone heard their insults.
“Children, settle down!” I ordered in a stern voice I didn’t recognize. They didn’t know this side of Ms. Privett, and I saw the fear in their eyes once more as they settled into their desks.
“Now,” I continued once I had their full attention, loud and firm. “The things you’ve said about Ms. Witherspoon are very disrespectful and uncalled for.”
Like an explosion they started again, tiny voices tumbled over each other in desperation to be louder than the next.
“She’s going to cast a spell on us because we didn’t put the books away properly!”
"The books locked away in the cupboard, they're her spell books. They've got to be!"
I noticed several of them were blinking back tears. For once in my career, I felt overwhelmed. I felt like a judge, standing before a raging crowd after an unfavored verdict.
“Children!” I tried again. A hush washed over the room, and their tiny eyes fixated on me. Eyes that displayed trust and hope.
I owed it to my students to at least investigate their claims, despite how outlandish they seemed. Our planned lesson would have to be for another time. The children were visibly distressed, justifiable, or not, so I allowed them to study silently for the last hour of our day.
Once I’d loaded them on the bus, I visited the library to ask Ms. Witherspoon what might have caused their uproar. I, of course, had no intention of telling her the terrible things they’d said. Children could be cruel with their vivid imaginations. She’d be better off not knowing how they viewed her.
She was bent over a shelf when I entered, running a long wrinkled finger over the labels she'd created herself. She wore a long skirt that brushed the carpet. It swayed around her ankles, as she shoved books into their place and hummed.
“Ms. Witherspoon?” I announced myself, and she stood, sliding her spectacles past the mole on her nose to better view me.
“Ah, hello.” She muttered. Her body creaked as she carried a pile of books to a table and sat them down.
“How were the children today? Did you read them a story? They seemed a bit… stirred when they returned.”
She continued to move around the library, shelving books, and turning corners. I shadowed her. It was evident she wasn’t interested in the conversation. I reminded myself she was elderly, and perhaps I was distracting her from an already difficult task, but frustration grew with each moment that passed. Finally, I prodded once more, “What did you read them?”
“I didn’t read.” She said simply.
Confused, I only stared at her. Her back was to me, invested fully in the shelves.
“I told them a story.” She finally said, a tinge of amusement in her tone. Her head was still engulfed in books, as if she was speaking to them rather than me.
Relieved, I nodded. “Well, you’ve certainly done a wonderful job instilling imagination in the children.”
Ms. Witherspoon grinned. She waved a book in her hand. “There is a fine line between imagination and reality, Ms. Privett. You can’t have one without the other.”
I nodded once more, unsure how to respond to such an absurd statement and unsure if she'd even expected me to. I left her to her duties, but my eyes trailed to the locked cupboard behind her desk on my way out. The cupboard, where the children say Ms. Witherspoon keeps her spell books.